, Volume 22, Issue 2, pp 115-130

Aspiration and Infection in the Elderly

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Abstract

Aspiration of the oropharyngeal or gastric contents by elderly persons often leads to lower respiratory tract infections, such as aspiration pneumonia or pneumonitis. The existence of dysphagia and aspiration in elderly patients are important factors in the occurrence of aspiration pneumonia, but are not sufficient to cause aspiration pneumonia in the absence of other risk factors. Salivary flow and swallowing can eliminate Gram-negative bacilli from the oropharynx in healthy persons. However, elderly persons may have diminished production of saliva as a result of medications and oral/dental disease, leading to poor oral hygiene and oropharyngeal colonisation with pathogenic organisms. When dysphagic patients aspirate pathogenic bacteria while swallowing food or liquids, they must also have decreased defences, such as impaired immunity or pulmonary clearance, in order to develop aspiration pneumonia.

Elderly patients with cerebrovascular disease often have dysphagia that leads to an increased incidence of aspiration. It was previously reported that patients with silent cerebral infarction affecting the basal ganglia were more likely to experience subclinical aspiration and an increased incidence of pneumonia. Basal ganglia infarction leads to the impairment of dopamine metabolism and, as a consequence, a decrease of substance P in the glossopharyngeal nerve and sensory vagal nerves. Therefore, dysphagia and a decreased cough reflex may be induced by the impairment of dopamine metabolism in some elderly patients with cerebrovascular disease, suggesting that pharmaceutical agents which modulate dopamine metabolism may be able to improve swallowing and the cough reflex in patients with basal ganglia infarction.

The main strategy for controlling aspiration and aspiration-related pulmonary infection in the elderly is to prevent aspiration of pathogenic bacteria along with the oropharyngeal or gastric contents. Because aspiration pneumonia in the elderly is related to certain risk factors, including dysphagia and aspiration, effective preventive measures involve various approaches, such as pharmacological therapy, swallowing training, dietary management, oral hygiene and positioning.